Monday, July 14, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

With Mozart, Schubert, Bach and Handel as its lead composers, this year’s opera offerings by the Aix-en-Provence Festival have a decidedly Germanic dominance. Only Rossini has no Teutonic connection. And all this on top of the World Cup.

You didn’t know that J. S. Bach composed an opera? Well, he didn’t but he did compose some 400 cantatas of which only half have survived. Conductor Raphaël Pichon and Director Katie Mitchell decided that they can fashion an opera using some of Bach’s cantatas and the result is Trauernacht or Night of Mourning. Mitchell has described the production as a meditation on death.

They have chosen parts from about a dozen cantatas and fashioned them thematically into a night of mourning by a family. Only the Father (Frode Olsen) is identified. The other four singers are identified only by their vocal range: soprano (Aoife Miskelly), alto (Eve-Maud Hubeaux), tenor (Rupert Charlesworth) and bass (Andri Bjorn Robertsson).

They are accompanied by the 11-member Ensemble baroque de l’Academie européenne de music conducted by Pichon.

There has clearly been a death in the family and the four singers sit around a simple table in a sparsely furnished kitchen. The father is a few feet behind them.

The programme opens with Johann Christoph Bach’s somber motet “Mit Weinen hebt’s an” (the only piece not by Johann Sebastian Bach). We are afflicted with sorrows from birth to death and only then do they cease, according to the motet. The programme then continues with cantatas sung by the five singers as solos or in various groupings. The singers carry out some mundane activities around the “kitchen” always moving slowly and methodically.    

The Chorus of Cantata BWV 146 continues the theme of our destiny to suffer: "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal" (we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God). But the soprano aria from Cantata BWV 127 “Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen” (my soul rests in the hands of Jesus) gives hope of everlasting life.

The tenor and alto follow with the recitative from Cantata BWV 60  “O Schwerer Gang” (O difficult way) where fear of death and suffering is superseded by faith in a merciful God.

The programme leads to Cantata BWV 82 - "Ich habe genug" (I have enough) where the faithful has taken Jesus into his heart and is ready to join Him. The programme ends with the Chorale BWV 668 “Vor deinem Thron” (before your throne) where the poor sinner is past the sorrows of mortals and appears before God’s throne praying for His grace.

The singers have commendable voices and the instrumental performances were sound. The performance lasts 90 minutes without an intermission. The idea of creating an opera out of Bach’s cantatas is interesting and meditating on death is a sobering experience. The beauty of Bach’s music and the hope given by Christian faith make this meditation quite other-worldly and the World Cup utterly mundane.       

Trauernacht by Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Christoph Bach opened on July 11 and will be performed a total of six times until July 20, 2014 at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France.

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